In a groundbreaking move endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the inaugural malaria vaccination campaign for children kicks off in Africa this Monday (today). Nearly 30 million doses are set to be distributed over the coming months, marking a pivotal moment in the battle against the tropical disease.
Cameroonian children will be the first recipients of malaria vaccines, part of a comprehensive rollout of medication developed by the UK pharmaceutical company GSK.
This initiative spans up to 12 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, while a second vaccination, crafted by Oxford University scientists and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, is scheduled for delivery in seven countries in May or June.
The distribution of an initial 18 million doses signifies a significant shift in the fight against malaria, a preventable disease caused by parasites transmitted by mosquitoes, which claimed the lives of 608,000 people in 2022, with 95% of fatalities occurring in Africa.
Aurélia Nguyen, Chief Programme Officer at Gavi, the global vaccine alliance collaborating with African nations to orchestrate the rollout, emphasized the positive impact of the vaccination.
She stated, “The vaccination will save lives, provide major relief for families and the country’s health system, and yield important economic dividends.”
Children under the age of five face particular vulnerability to the disease. GSK’s RTS, S vaccine has already been administered to nearly 2 million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi, showing a 30% reduction in severe malaria symptoms, according to WHO studies.
Over 30 African countries have expressed interest in receiving malaria vaccines. Gavi is distributing up to 18 million doses of the RTS, S vaccine, followed by an estimated 10 million doses of the R21/Matrix-M jab across seven countries in mid-2024. The WHO initially recommended the GSK shot in 2021, and in October, it also endorsed the Oxford vaccine.
However, the implementation plan faces logistical hurdles. Children require four shots within their first two years, posing challenges for health teams reaching families in remote areas.
Health leaders aim to align malaria vaccinations with other shots, like those for measles, to boost uptake of all four doses. Dorothy Achu, the WHO’s regional malaria adviser, highlighted challenges in reaching children in remote areas and stressed the need for community strategies to ensure sustained participation.
Adrian Hill, one of the Oxford scientists behind the R21 jab, criticized the WHO for what he perceived as a lack of “urgency,” particularly as the mid-2024 target for distributing the jab was set.